Up to 8,000 are believed to be stuck off Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian coasts, and those who made it to shore describe violence and starvation.
Crowded under tarpaulin tents strewn with rubbish and boxes of water, the persecuted Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants speak of horrors at sea: of murders, of killing each other over scarce supplies of food and water, of corpses thrown overboard.
“One family was beaten to death with wooden planks from the boat, a father, a mother and their son,” says Mohammad Amin, 35. “And then they threw the bodies into the ocean.”
“They hit us, with hammers, by knife, cutting,” says Rafique, recalling onboard violence between the different groups of migrants. He presents his only possession – a Rohingya identity card from the United Nations high commission for refugees in Bangladesh.
Amin, an ethnic Rohingya Muslim, first boarded a boat from Burma three months ago. Now he is among 677 migrants who are being housed in a makeshift camp by the harbour in Langsa, Indonesia, after spending months in the Andaman Sea.
Getting to the camp was an epic struggle. As governments around the region have refused the migrants entry, and their navies have pushed them back, it was eventually down to Acehnese fishermen to rescue the boat on Friday, towing it to shore in Langsa.
In Langsa, Amin, a former farmer in Burma, tells of how his village was set alight in a violent attack several years ago. His mother, he says, was burned to death because she was too old to escape.
But at least now they are on dry land. Between 6,000 and 8,000 more are believed to still be stuck off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, with limited water and food, in a situation the UN has warned could fast become a “massive humanitarian crisis” because no government in the region is willing to take them in.
Many of those on the ships are from northern Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority, who have been denied citizenship and voting rights, even though they have lived in the country for generations.
In the majority Buddhist nation, the Rohingya have continued to flee state sponsored violence and extreme conditions in refugee camps.
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